The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Monday that the City of Sydney is alarmed by the government’s plans for the redevelopment of a 19-hectare state-owned site in inner-suburban Waterloo.

The council says the planned density will be on a “scale seen only in pockets of New York or Hong Kong but greater than anything in Singapore” (item 4.3 here). The Herald reports that:

“The government is planning a precinct of 20 and 30-storey towers that would increase the density around Waterloo, where a new rail station is planned, to the equivalent of 70,000 people per square kilometre, the council says.

“That would be more than four times as dense as the current densest area in Australia, Pyrmont, which houses 14,000 people per square kilometre. The Green Square area, which is already an emerging transport nightmare, is planned to house a comparatively modest 22,000 people per square kilometre.”

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Some 70,000 persons per square kilometre? Towers of 20 or 30 storeys? Denser than anywhere in Singapore? Denser than all but “pockets” of Hong Kong and New York? Is this a scene from a dystopian movie? That’s the way readers of the Herald responded.

Melburnians are used to hearing these sorts of apocalyptic scenarios and especially the references to Asian cities, as if Hong Kong and Singapore are hell on Earth rather than being two of the richest cities in the world.

But hang on a bit — is it really that bad? I think there are a number of points to consider.

First, this is not a case of imposing high-rise housing on a leafy suburban landscape. This is a government-owned site with a number of existing buildings that exceed 30 storeys.

Second, the level of density isn’t by itself a satisfactory guide to whether or not the development will provide adequate amenity for residents and neighbours; that depends at least as much on how well it’s designed.

Third, even if it were redeveloped at Hong Kong densities, 19 hectares is pretty small in the context of a built-up metropolitan area of circa 300,000 hectares. It’s equivalent to the area of a circle with a radius of 250 metres. I don’t have numbers for a Sydney equivalent to hand, but it’s only three hectares larger than the pitch of the MCG. It’s only a fraction of the 700-hectare area of Melbourne’s CBD.

Fourth, comparing such a small site — 19 hectares is only 0.19 square kilometres — with areas elsewhere of one square kilometre is problematic; larger areas inevitably have a lower average density because size evens out variability.

Fifth, 700 persons/hectare is certainly a high density, but it’s not as scarily dense as the council makes out. A report by Melbourne City Council compared the densities current planning policies in various cities would permit on the same-sized block of land.

It found a density of 1290 persons per hectare is permissible in Vancouver, i.e. 84% more than what Sydney City Council says is proposed for Waterloo. It calculated the maximum permissible density is 2620 persons/ha in Hong Kong and 2560/ha in New York; that’s almost four times higher than what’s supposedly slated for Waterloo.

The City of Melbourne produced the report because it’s concerned that a particular block of land in Melbourne’s CBD could have a density of 6290 persons/ha under state government policies, i.e. nine times the density that the City of Sydney and The Sydney Morning Herald are shouting dystopia and doom about.

Finally — and this should end the silly claims —  the NSW government states bluntly that the City of Sydney is simply wrong. Premier Mike Baird says the density intended for Waterloo will be similar to that in Green Square, i.e. 220 persons/ha. That’s a third of what the council is claiming.

The authority responsible for the development of Waterloo, the curiously named UrbanGrowth, confirms the Premier’s claim and says the planned density for Waterloo is “lower than comparative projects closer to the CBD such as Central Park and Darling Square”.

The City of Sydney might well have other legitimate complaints about Waterloo and the broader Central to Eveleigh project, but the planned density for Waterloo isn’t one of them. The Sydney Morning Herald should’ve given the council’s claims at least a cursory review before giving them so much exposure.

This issue is about much more than the City of Sydney and the Herald playing fast and loose with the facts. It’s about the council promoting fear of density. That’s unfortunate because increasing the number of people who live on the Waterloo site has enormous benefits. It will:

  • Increase metropolitan housing supply;
  • Expand the range and quality of local services accessible by residents;
  • Increase the efficient use of infrastructure like the planned new Waterloo rail station;
  • Improve the scope for value-capture to finance better infrastructure (this is one of those cases where the government fortuitously already owns the land);
  • Help lower demand for development in other parts of the metropolitan area that are less well-suited to development, e.g. outer suburbs; and
  • Reduce the demand from residents for car travel.

The greatest danger in Waterloo isn’t excessive density; it’s exclusion of those who can’t afford the entry price dictated by the unreasonably high minimum amenity standards set down in NSW planning policy — SEPP 65.

*This article was originally published at Crikey blog The Urbanist

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